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Conversations with Clayton: Dan Epstein

Author of the two best books on baseball in the 1970s: Big Hair and Plastic Grass and Stars and Strikes.

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Mark Fidrych with 'Big Bird'

Season two of “Conversations with Clayton” continues with an interview featuring one of my favorite writers in any genre.

Dan Epstein is the author of the two best historical books on Major League Baseball during the 1970s: Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s and Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ‘76.

If you have not read these books, go buy them right now, read them, and then report back to Down the Drive. No writer alive weaves sports, popular culture, and social history together as thoughtfully and entertainingly as Epstein.

In addition to his two baseball books, Epstein has written about music, politics, and media for nearly every publication worth reading in North America, including SPIN, Rolling Stone, Guitar World and Men’s Journal.

In this fascinating interview, Epstein discusses what was distinct about 1970s baseball, Mark Fidrych’s June 1976 Monday Night Baseball appearance, and his love for the experimental hard rock band UFO.

Note that the picture attached to this article is of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, not Epstein himself.

Clayton Trutor (CT): The periodization of the 1970s remains an issue of popular and scholarly controversy. It seems that many people want to treat the early 1970s as an extension of the 1960s or treat the latter half of the 1970s as a prelude to the 1980s. Do you tend to see the 1970s more as a discreet time period or as an extension of the 1960s or the 1980s?

Dan Epstein (DE): I don’t think 1970s baseball was an “extension” of 1960s baseball in any way except chronologically. Imagine telling someone in 1968 that, within ten years, baseball players would be wearing long hair, beards and brightly colored polyester uniforms; that the game would be played on artificial surfaces in nearly half of MLB ballparks, many of them concrete donuts that bore little resemblance to the classic ballparks of yore; that American League teams would have designated hitters in their lineups instead of pitchers; that some players would be speaking openly to the press about controversial topics like marijuana and race relations; that fans rioting on the field would become a semi-regular occurrence; or that (perhaps most importantly) players would be able to play out their contract options and sell themselves to a new team at a considerably higher salary? They would have replied that you were insane...

Obviously, the “seeds” for many of these developments were planted in the 1960s — but very few writers, players or fans at the time could have identified them or foresaw them coming. But of course, it’s not like everything changes at the stroke of midnight at the beginning of a new decade. For me, “70s baseball” really starts in 1969, with the expansion of both leagues to 12 teams, the separating of each league into two separate divisions, and the introduction of the best-of-five playoffs to determine the league champions. (The Mets’ miraculous World Series win also seems like a harbinger of the wildness and weirdness to come.) And it ends with the first-ever all-Astroturf World Series in 1980 — or, at the latest, the strike of 1981. While there was certainly a lot of 70s/80s overlap in terms of the way the players looked and played the game, I think the character of it changes greatly in the 80s, in part because America in the 80s was such a different place than it was during the previous decade.

CT: Do you find it easier to write about sports or music?

DE: On the whole, I don’t find one easier (or more difficult) to write about than the other. For me, the most difficult things to write about are business- or legal-related topics within sports OR music; that stuff doesn’t come naturally to me, so I have to spend a lot more time on the research and writing to make sure that I a) have got all the facts right, and b) am conveying it in a manner that’s not too dry or dull for the reader. For instance, the most challenging sections of Stars and Strikes to write were the ones regarding Seattle suing the American League to give the city a new franchise, San Francisco’s city government stepping in to block the Giants from moving to Toronto, and the Basic Agreement negotiations between the Players Association and the MLB owners; that’s all really important stuff, with deep backstories and massive long-term effects, so I put a lot of sweat into making sure I recounted it in a manner that was accurate, enlightening and succinct.

CT: If you had a time machine, which ballpark would you most like to visit for a game during the 1970s?

DE: That’s an easy one — Tiger Stadium, specifically for Mark Fidrych’s famous Monday Night Baseball appearance against the Yankees on June 28, 1976. I spent much of my childhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so Tiger Stadium was the first MLB ballpark I ever went to; and it was an absolutely glorious place to see a ballgame (unless, of course, you were stuck behind one of the support girders). But the Tiger teams of the mid/late 70s were pretty lousy, so the ballpark was pretty empty every time I went there for a game, and I wish I could have felt the amazing energy of “The Corner” on a night when virtually every seat in the house was filled. Also, I never got to see Fidrych pitch in person, so a time machine trip back to that particular place and time would truly be a “two Birds with one stone” kinda thing.

CT: How would you rank the decades of the 20th century in terms of your enthusiasm for its popular culture?

DE: 70s, 60s and 50s would be my 1, 2 and 3, by a long shot — there’s just so much that I keep discovering (or going back to for spiritual sustenance) from those particular decades, whether it’s music, movies, TV, sports, art, architecture, literature or fashion. My connection to the earlier decades of the 20th century feels a lot more abstract — while I love American history in general, and I especially love the films of the 1930s and 40s, I can’t say I feel as intense a desire to board a time machine back to any of those eras. The 80s were pretty appalling on a myriad of levels; and while I loved being alive in the 90s, most of the music I enjoyed during that decade was (aside from hip-hop) essentially re-hashed from the good stuff of earlier decades. So I don’t feel a whole lot of enthusiasm for either of those decades, at least from a “let’s go back and revisit them” standpoint.

CT: You’ve written about how you checked out on baseball between the mid-1980s and the late-1990s. Have you spent much time going back and exploring baseball during this era?

DE: 1984 was really the last year I paid close attention to baseball for a long time — and, since I’m both a Tigers and Cubs fan, that was a pretty great year to be reading the box scores on a daily basis. But when I started college in the fall of 1985, baseball took an immediate back-seat for me — partly because I was increasingly more interested in music, girls, and smoking weed (as well as, ahem, my studies), but also because there was kind of an attitude in the underground music world I inhabited at the time that sports were for moronic jock types, and music was for “cool people”. It took me until the late 1990s (and the Sosa-McGwire home run chase) to fully disabuse myself of that stupid notion, and to realize that I needed baseball back in my life on more than an occasional basis.

That said, when I finally went back and started looking at what had gone down while I was away, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t really miss a whole lot. Sure, the ’86 Mets were a fascinating team, and I wish I’d been paying more attention to the ’87 Tigers or Greg Maddux’s first seasons in a Cubs uniform, but on the whole it all seemed a lot less colorful and interesting to me than the players and the game I grew up with. Admittedly, one’s “golden era” of baseball is usually directly related to the era in which one fell in love with the game for the first time, so that’s not a huge knock on baseball of the 80s and 90s (or the people who loved it); but that’s also why I’ve never had any real interest in writing a Big Hair & Plastic Grass-type book about baseball in the 1980s. If I’m going to write a book on a particular topic, I need to feel passionate about it — and I’ve never been able to muster much passion for 80s baseball, or at least the part of the decade that followed the Tigers’ World Series win in ’84.

CT: Tell me about your history or lack thereof with professional wrestling and roller derby.

DE: It falls pretty hard into the “lack thereof” category. I watched a fair amount of Saturday morning roller derby in 1979, when I was living in Los Angeles, but I didn’t understand it at all — it was just something amusing to watch on while I ate my breakfast. And while I loved the idea of Abdullah the Butcher going up against Mr. Wrestling 2 at the Atlanta Braves’ “Headlock and Wedlock Night” in 1976, I really didn’t have much contact at all with pro wrestling as a kid. And then, when wrestling became really big in the 80s, that version of it just seemed really cheesy and dumb to me, so I couldn’t get into it.

CT: When you hear the word “Cincinnati,” you think of ___________

DE: The Big Red Machine, no question. They were the first MLB team I hated — basically, because they were so phenomenally great. The very first National League game I ever attended was a Dodgers vs. Reds contest at Dodger Stadium in August 1976; I was rooting for the Dodgers, because my mom lived in Los Angeles, and the Reds — who were very clearly on the way to their second-straight World Series championship — just crushed them. At the same time, I remember being totally in awe of Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, and I couldn’t believe I was getting to see them perform in real life. And watching them steamroll the Phillies and the Yankees that October was almost frightening; it didn’t quite seem fair, at least within the context of my fifth-grade view of the universe. Frankly, it’s still kind of amazing to me that they didn’t “run the table” on the rest of the decade.

CT: Why is the band UFO so awe-inspiring?

DE: My love for UFO is a multi-layered one. I love every one of their 1970s albums, especially the ones with Michael Schenker on lead guitar. It was such a weird combination — some swaggering, streetwise Englishmen with roots in London’s psychedelic scene of the 1960s, and an eccentric and erratic German guitar genius — but it made for absolute hard rock perfection. In an era of doughy rock excess, UFO’s music was very stripped-down and aggressive, yet still very melodic, emotional and catchy as hell; listening to it always clears my head, gets my heart racing, and makes me feel like I can accomplish (or get through) anything. And “Love to Love” is simply the greatest power ballad of all time; if you can listen to that song without getting misty, you may not have a fully-evolved soul.

But I also love UFO for what they represent to me: They were one of several great hard rock bands of the era (including AC/DC and Thin Lizzy) that I only became familiar with once I moved to Chicago from Los Angeles at the end of 1979, and their music really takes me back to the beginning of a very important chapter in my life, and the thrilling freedom of being able to explore and discover a city on my own. In fact, one of the very first times I ever went downtown by myself, I bought UFO’s Lights Out album at Loop Records off State Street, so it’s impossible for me to listen to that record without experiencing a flood of positive memories from the spring of 1980.

CT: Which sports-related films of the 1970s do you find the most interesting.

DE: Bad News Bears and Slap Shot would be at the top of my list, both because they’re as honest — about their respective sports, and about the realities of life in America in the 1970s — as they are funny. Both of them are perfectly cast and brilliantly written, and still hold up really well to this day. Breaking Away and North Dallas Fortywould also be on my list, and then I’d also have to throw in The Black Six; the latter is an absolutely terrible film, but I find it endlessly fascinating that somebody thought basing a Blaxploitation flick entirely around six NFL players (Gene Washington, Mean Joe Greene, Mercury Morris, Lem Barney, Willie Lanier and Carl Eller) with little or no prior acting experience was a good idea.

CT: What are you working on right now?

DE: Trying to make a living as a freelance writer, mostly, while also looking for a full-time job. I’d love to spend my days doing research and writing books, but it’s unfortunately not a viable way to keep a roof over my head. I’m very proud of my two baseball books, and I haven’t ruled out writing another — though there’s also a good chance that my next book will be more music-related. That said, the endless hustle of the freelance life doesn’t give me much time or energy to devote to a book, so I’m hoping to find something more permanent in the new year that will also allow me some free time for other projects.

Follow Dan Epstein on Twitter. He is one of the medium’s genuine auteurs: @BigHairPlasGras

Buy Dan’s books Stars and Strikes and Big Hair and Plastic Grass

For more of the same, follow me on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor